Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Mountain West Conference will finally take the football field Saturday as the San Diego State Aztecs host the UNLV Rebels up at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California.
San Diego State is playing off-campus in 2020 since SDCCU Stadium is going to be replaced by a new 35,000-seat stadium along with housing on the northwest portion of the site. The Aztecs' new stadium is long overdue and should inject some new life into this program as time goes on.
Brady Hoke takes over as the San Diego State head coach for the second time after Rocky Long stepped down back in January. The Aztecs went 10-3 last season, including a 48-11 win over Central Michigan in the New Mexico Bowl. Hoke previously led San Diego State during the 2009 and '10 seasons when he led them to a 13-12 record and sparked the football program's resurgence.
Hoke's hire will provide key continuity for the program, which has been an underrated reason why San Diego State has been to a bowl game every year since 2010. Defensively, the Aztecs will continue to run the 3-3-5 scheme that Long designed and has been so successful over the past several years. The question mark is the offense, as that unit struggled way too often at key moments during the 2019 season.
UNLV is coming off of a 4-8 season in 2019 that led to the dismissal of head coach Tony Sanchez, who was just 20-40 over five seasons. Former Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo takes over, and he has hit the ground running from a recruiting perspective. The Rebels put together the second-best recruiting class in the conference upon Arroyo’s arrival and are off to a great start on their 2021 class which is impressive considering the COVID-19 pandemic.
Allegiant Stadium will round out the Rebels' facilities, as they already have the $34 million Fertitta Football Complex, so both boxes are now checked in that very important category. On the field, UNLV will return 14 starters from last season but is predicted to finish last in the conference. It will be crucial for Arroyo and his staff to get this team to buy in and embrace the role of the underdog in year one as they work their way up the ladder in the Mountain West.
UNLV at San Diego State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Aztecs -13
Three Things to Watch
1. Can San Diego State right the ship on offense?
New offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski has a challenge on his hands as he has the task of jump-starting an offense that ranked 120th in 2018 and 112th last year in total offense. That lack of consistent offensive production simply can’t continue for the Aztecs if they want to get over the finish line and win a conference championship in 2020.
Shoring up the play along the offensive line will go a long way towards helping the offense improve this fall. Kyle Spalding, William Dunkle, and Jacob Capra are three returning starters within the offensive line that will need to be aware of UNLV linebacker Farrell Hester II, who is their top returning tackles with 70 stops in 2019. They also will need to control the line of scrimmage to get the running game going to help new quarterback Carson Baker.
2. UNLV offense
This will be a great test for the Rebels right out of the gate since San Diego State brings back a very experienced defensive unit led by safeties Dwayne Johnson Jr. and Tariq Thompson. UNLV moved the ball well in last year’s 20-17 loss to the Aztecs and totaled 375 yards of total despite falling behind 17-0. Fast forward to this week, Kenyon Oblad, Justin Rogers, and Max Gilliam have been battling in fall camp for the starting quarterback job, and no one has claimed the starting job as of the middle of the week. There may not be clarity about the starting quarterback until the first offensive snap on Saturday night.
Charles Williams, who rushed for 1,257 yards last season, is back at running back, and he will be the biggest key to success for this offense as the Rebels will need to do a great job of controlling the clock. Randal Grimes (44 receptions, 696 yards, 7 touchdowns in 2019) leads the wide receiver group, and it will give the offense a nice shot in the arm this week if he can take the top off of the San Diego State defense and create a couple of explosive plays.
3. San Diego State defensive mindset
It will be problematic for the Aztecs defense if they head into this game thinking that this is the same old UNLV team from the previous regime. The Rebels have a coach in Marcus Arroyo who won’t be intimated by having to go up against Brady Hoke and San Diego State. Consequently, it is going to be crucial for the defense to come out and set a very physical tone at the line of scrimmage and create some early turnovers.
You can expect to see eight or nine guys in the box early and often as the defense will sell out to stop Williams in the run game and force UNLV to beat them through the air. If they can force whoever is playing quarterback for the Rebels to win the game with his arm, it should play into the hands of Thompson, who had 55 tackles, four interceptions, three tackles for loss, and a pair of fumble returns in 2019.
This game should play out like most season-openers with a mix of big plays, critical penalties, and a special teams mistake or two. The lack of fans in Carson will be interesting since it will test both coaches and their ability to get their teams to generate their own energy. San Diego State has the better defense coming back at this point, and that will eventually be the difference on Saturday night in the second half. Look for a pretty competitive game between these two teams, as it will take some time for the Aztecs to develop their offense to a point where they can blow out a team this season.
Prediction: San Diego State 27, UNLV 20
Podcast: Week 8 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.
(Charles Williams photo courtesy of UNLV Athletics)